The Old Guard Review: Immortal, Indivisible?

Jul 12, 2020
Reviewing a movie based on a comic book you've loved is a balancing act at the best of times - how much can you refer to the book before you find that all you have is comparisons with the original? - but with Netflix's newest comic book based release, The Old Guard, drawn from Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández' series about a group of ancient immortal warriors who roam the modern world fighting evil doers and rescuing the innocent, the matter is unavoidable. With Rucka himself writing the screenplay, and a tight focus on the events of the first volume, we have to treat this as an adaptation to a new medium, rather than fully new material. 

Initial news of the movie left me deeply concerned: group commander and most ancient of ancient warriors Andronika the Scythian is up there in my Top Ten of female characters, and the choice of Charlize Theron for the role left me sceptical (more on that shortly), while the release of the movie poster left me downright unnerved. Fernández' stunning design for the series is sumptuously rich in colour, with grime and sweat and smoke rising off the page: the poster is clinical, almost monochromatic, the only hint of familiarity in the depiction of Andronika's signature near circular war axe - yet even this was almost neutralised in a style-over-substance design.

I approached the movie itself then with perhaps more resignation than trepidation: this book is too important to me to allow hope that the adaptation might be as good - better to assume the worst to avoid disappointment. And… well, it's good. It didn't have the impact, for me, that the series had on first reading (though, to be fair, this was one of the first things I chose for myself to read, and its effect on me, as you may be able to tell, was profound): I found myself almost wishing to be able to temporarily extract my knowledge of the story from my brain to experience it fully fresh. When does the 'new' person watching realise that these are immortals? How do they come by the understanding of how that works? The film medium allowed for some neat touches on the latter. I had been looking out for the ambush scene, because Fernández' version, with its underlying 'deafening' sound effects and disorienting muzzle flashes whiting out sections of the page, was the first topic I raved about about at our comics meet and is thus imprinted near permanently on my memory. In the movie, in the following quiet, a bullet gently pops out of a wound in Booker's face and plinks onto the concrete floor - these things can be done more effectively on celluloid than paper, and that feels like something to perhaps rebalance the scales left so drastically uneven without the atmosphere Fernández creates in the source.

Rucka is a comic book writer at heart, and there are other scenes throughout the movie where you can see how a moment would have looked on paper: the foreshadowing of a box of Merrick medical supplies appearing at the Marine camp, the infamous pile of discarded shoes, the stair top pose with the misappropriated axe. Some things are missing, and missed, though: I guess it's a certification issue in these more health conscious days, but Andy's smoking was more than just a habit, it was a character trait in the comic - her demeanour of ennui, wreathed in tendrils of smoke from something obviously unfiltered, shouted louder messages about her nature than twenty lines of dialogue could have added in the movie. Theron does as good a job as anyone could, I guess, and whilst that seems like faint praise, but I don't think anyone could actually have embodied 'my' Andronika, so I'm pleasantly impressed at what was achieved with the slightly renamed Andromache of Scythia. Her fight scenes, much of which seem to have been done without doubles, are really outstanding; she is fast, strong and agile but still manages to put realistic weight into the stomp of a boot and the swing of an axe. I struggled, though, to feel her age; Andy is ancient, she has been a goddess, a witch, a freedom fighter and, constantly, a warrior, she has suffered unimaginable loss over thousands of years and gathered wisdom from multitudes of cultures.

On paper, Fernández gives her the gravitas she has earned, she is dark-eyed, angular-faced, closed-off in demeanour (all of Fernández' ancient ones are hawk-nosed, as if in recognition that noses keep growing even in adulthood). One of my favourite sections from the book shows her picking up a stranger for sex and then moving on without attachment; she is not emotionless, not at all, but she is entirely under control, taking pleasure as she needs it without allowing it to cause her the harm of love and loss. Theron's performance is almost flawless; which in this context is a small criticism. Her Andy has the control, certainly, the strength (she performs a career high 'pissed off walk' which I will be practising ready for future storming out of meetings), she fights with gusto and believable reactions, she commands the lead of the group of immortal warriors credibly. Like the movie poster though, she's a little clean, a little perfect, her bright, green eyes conveying determination, yes, but Andromache should radiate darkness, she embodies the human response to war and suffering. Maybe I'm asking too much here.

A terrific supporting cast really brings this movie up for me: KiKi Layne, as 'new' immortal Nile, scores a direct hit with her combination of confident self-possession in her own world and confusion moving to swift adoption of the new normal in the new team. Matthias Schoenaerts delivers great eye acting: the tension underpinning Booker's behaviour in the first half of the movie being clearly obvious to those who know where the story goes. The relationship between Joe and Nicky was one of my favourite elements of the original story and it was genuinely affecting to me to see the recreation of Joe's speech when provoked about the nature of their connection: Marwan Kenzari and and Luca Marinelli portraying the now eternal love between two former sworn enemies ("We have killed each other many times!") with subtlety and touching tenderness. 

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood draws strong performances from all the cast in a pacy structure which didn't sag or lose my attention once. I will be seeking out more of her movies: astonishingly, The Old Guard holds the honour of being the first comic book movie from a Black, female director - let's hope this rapidly becomes the first of many. Perhaps since the mooted TV series appears not to have transpired, we convince Prince-Bythewood and Netflix to consider an adaptation of another kickass female immortal Rucka creation (wanders off into reverie)...?

Immortals from the Old Guard
Rucka sets himself up with future work by firmly stoking the sequel fire towards the end of the piece - based on this, will I be there with my popcorn for a further installment? Right now, I'm thinking, heck yeah, why not? - but Fernández gets to design the posters next time around, yes?

THE OLD GUARD (2020)
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Screenplay: Greg Rucka (based on: The Old Guard by Greg Rucka, Leandro Fernández)
125 minutes

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